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From Associated to Candidate Trio? Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova’s EU membership journey

The European prospects of Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova have become a key topic of debate since Russia launched its “special military operation”. Eager to protect their pro-western outlooks, the three states could soon gain candidate status with the EU.

April 19, 2022 - Denis Cenusa Kerry Longhurst - Articles and Commentary

The President of Georgia Salome Zourabichvili and the President of Moldova Maia Sandu together with the President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the President of the European Council Charles Michel during the Batumi Conference in 2021. Photo: Presidential Administration of Ukraine wikimedia.org

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is proving to be a tipping point for the European Union’s role in Eastern Europe. On April 8th, European Commission head Ursula von der Leyen presented Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy with an official membership questionnaire. The prospect of Ukraine’s accession to the EU subsequently took a big leap forward. Though met with less fanfare, Moldova and Georgia have also been handed questionnaires, signalling a newfound urgency to start talks on future membership for the three states.

If all sides continue to show sufficient political will and commitment, it is only a matter of time until the three states become full EU members. Whilst sceptics might claim that these former Soviet states are far from ready for candidate status, it is worth recalling that EU enlargement has been used to good effect as a geopolitical tool. In the 1980s in Spain and Portugal, and again in the 2000s in Central Europe, the prospect of EU accession was instrumental in the consolidation of democracy and market economies. It also brought prosperity and stability to previously autocratic regimes. The same logic is currently applicable to the Western Balkans, where most of the countries are in the process of accession.

From reluctance in the 1990s to enthusiasm after 2009

Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova appeared on Brussels’s radar in the mid-1990s. In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, relations were sealed by Partnership and Cooperation Agreements. These were basically copies of the EU-Russia agreements and largely proved to be uninspiring. Relations only became dynamic and consequential after 2009, when the EU established the Eastern Partnership (EaP) following Russia’s war against Georgia in 2008. With help from Brussels and other international organisations, the three states have consistently aligned with EU laws, expanded bilateral trade and established visa free regimes.

After signing Association Agreements in 2014, the three became known as EU “Associated states”. Whilst the EaP kept the Trio close to the EU’s orbit, it also kept them at arm’s length. The EU aspirations of the three countries were consistently and openly acknowledged in Brussels. However, the prospect of membership remained an uncomfortable talking point. Instead, the EU concentrated on maximising the effects of the Association Agreements, focusing on bringing about much-needed reforms concerning the rule of law and corruption, supporting economic modernisation and expanding trade opportunities. Until now, desires to first finalise enlargement in the Western Balkans were a key obstacle to any consideration of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine’s membership.

Differences between the Associated Trio and the Western Balkans

There are plenty of signs that the EU genuinely wants to make Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova membership candidates sooner rather than later. For example, membership questionnaires handed out to the Trio are more concise than that given to Serbia in November 2010. This was given to Belgrade almost a year after it applied for membership in December 2009. Serbia’s questionnaire consisted of some 2,500 questions, 33 chapters and six annexes. The Serbian authorities had started to prepare responses to the questionnaire as early as 2007, two years before it was officially received from Brussels. Belgrade created 35 working groups and prepared around 85 per cent of its responses in advance. Similar questionnaires were delivered to Montenegro and Albania in 2009. Candidate status was offered to Serbia, Montenegro and Albania in 2012, 2010 and 2014 respectively. This means that the average time frame between starting the questionnaire phase and gaining candidacy was around four years.

Unlike their Balkan peers, Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova received the Questionnaire in two blocs, with 369 questions in the first round and the remaining estimated 2,000 to follow as part of a second Questionnaire, to be handed over in May. The questionnaires cover two broad blocks, focusing on sectoral policies, such as the rule of law and the economy, as well as the country’s capacity (legal-administrative and institutional) to assume the obligations of the EU. Given their participation in the EaP, the Associated Trio should not have any fundamental difficulties providing answers to most questions. For the EU, the questionnaire will be a means to gauge implementation of the three Association Agreements. Based on their gradual alignment with EU laws and norms since 2014, the trio should be able to hit the ground running on the road to candidate status.

What next? Three possible scenarios

Three possible paths lie ahead for the EU, Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. The first “leap of faith” scenario would involve the swift completion of questionnaires and a resoundingly positive response from Brussels. Gaps and discrepancies regarding the three states’ readiness will still be clear at this point. Nevertheless, the Trio would be given candidate status by the end of 2022, with an expedited timeline for membership. This scenario could occur especially in the cases of Ukraine and Moldova, as both governments charged with completing the questionnaire can rely on expertise and support from abundant civil society organisations specialising in EU affairs. In addition, the Commission promised to help Ukraine complete the questionnaire, hinting at the possibility of technical assistance for this purpose.

A second “fall at the first hurdle” scenario would see a lack of domestic capacity and necessary political will lead to an inability to properly complete the questionnaire and respond to the EU’s initiative and window of opportunity. This would effectively set the prospect of membership adrift for the three states.

The third and most likely path runs between the first two. Despite being pro-EU, it does not follow that the three countries’ national and regional authorities have the requisite knowhow and capacities to efficiently complete the questionnaire in a reasonable time frame. It is also likely that the process will become bogged down by politics and inter-ministerial quarrels. Nevertheless, the sheer weight of political will and sympathy from the EU side will help ensure that questionnaires are completed by early 2023, if not before. Though keen to keep up the positive momentum, the EU will not overlook fundamental flaws regarding democracy, the rule of law and corruption. These are problems that continue to beset all three countries and have been the root causes of previous problems and fissures with the EU and other international organisations. Although candidate status will be forthcoming, EU member states will insist that the Commission’s negotiating mandate and terms of accession include non-negotiable conditions for permanent improvements in these areas. In this scenario, Ukraine might have a better chance of receiving a positive response at the EU Council summit in June, when the Commission’s opinion on the Ukrainian questionnaire is supposed to be assessed. Moldova could also do well if it manages to mobilise and answer the questionnaire that will be evaluated during the French presidency in the Council of the EU. The EU currently has a positive outlook regarding both Ukraine and Moldova. However, it is less enthusiastic about Georgia due to recent backsliding in key reform areas and the government’s confrontational Eurosceptic discourse.

The way to go

Whilst a fast-track path to membership is compelling, sticking with the tried and tested enlargement methodology and clear conditionality is also important. The EU should not lower its standards. Despite this, the organisation does need to adapt the sequencing and speed of its procedures to be able to expedite candidate status for Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. If proceedings were to last as long as in the Western Balkans, the current level of enthusiasm in the EU and Eastern Europe might dwindle.

Whilst it will not bring the current war to an end or deter Russia from any further land grabs, candidate status is a tangible and much-needed sign of solidarity with the people of Ukraine, as well as Georgia and Moldova. Candidate status is also backed by fresh EU resources, which will provide incentives for sustainable democratic and economic reform and civil society engagement in the region. This will help build stability and prosperity. One of the outstanding issues that remains unresolved is the three states’ breakaway territories. These are aligned with Russia’s geopolitical agenda and cannot be easily, if at all, included in European integration. As Russia’s perception of the EU as a secondary military bloc after NATO becomes more clear, the pro-Russian breakaway regions may be used in the future to resist the three states’ EU agendas.

EU enlargement is typically the result of high politics, gestures and technical verification. It is generally a protracted waiting game with the onus on the candidate to prove their worth. The case of Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova confirms the relevance of all these elements. However, it also shows the importance of speed and of seizing potentially time-limited opportunities. Transforming the Associated Trio into a “Trio of Candidates” might have seemed far-fetched two months ago, but it now seems fully achievable and the right thing to do.

Denis Cenusa is a political risk analyst and associate expert at Eastern Europe Studies Centre in Lithuania and “Expert-Grup” think tank in Moldova. He is conducting his PhD research at the Giessen University in Germany.

Kerry Longhurst holds a PhD in International Relations from the University of Birmingham, UK and an MSc in Strategic Studies from the University of Wales. She is currently Jean Monnet Professor and Deputy Head of Department of International Relations and Sustainable Development at Collegium Civitas in Warsaw and also a consultant and team leader on projects for the EU (DG NEAR and DEVCO) and other International Organisations in the Eastern neighbourhood and the Black Sea region.

Kerry Longhurst’s contribution is based on findings from a National Science Centre of Poland (NCN) grant ‘Domestic Barriers to the Pro-European Transformation of Moldova’ No. 2016/23/B/1155/03635.   

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